Chamberlain on the Radical Programme

First speech on the Unauthorised Programme by Joseph Chamberlain – Warrington, September 8 1885.

What is the Radial programme? I believe that the Liberal Federation which has been meeting here today has just published and put into circulation a work with that title, which I commend to your consideration. It consists of essays and articles from the Fortnightly Review, collected and revised. I wish that some of those who on Tory platforms go about abusing their opponents without much knowledge, would make themselves acquainted with the contents of that book. I do not suppose that they would agree with what it contains they would not be Tories if they did but at least they would see that there is nothing dangerous, and nothing unconstitutional, and nothing unjust, in the great majority of the proposals made on behalf of the Radical party.

The most important of these proposals refer to the question of land. I believe that the people of this country have seen clearly and instinctively that the greatest and most urgent reforms centre upon this subject. If we can do anything to multiply the number of those who have a direct interest in the soil they till, if we can increase the production of the land, if we can find work for a large proportion of the population in connection with the greatest, the most important of our industries; and if we can make the lot of the labourers more hopeful and more prosperous, we shall have done much to bless both town and the country, and to add to the contentment and the prosperity of the whole population.

Well what is our contribution to the solution of this problem? We propose nothing extreme, I was going to say nothing new. We propose to extend the functions and powers of the local authorities. We proceed on the lines already adopted in legislation in the Irish Land Act, in the Irish Labourers Act, in the Artisans Dwellings Act, in the Housing of the Poor Act, and in some of the Public Health Acts and we propose to give the popular representative authorities the right to obtain land for all public purposes at its fair value, without paying an extortionate price to the landowner for the privilege of re-entering on what was the original possession of the whole community. We purpose also that the local authority in every district, under proper conditions, shall have power to let land for labourers allotments, for artisans dwellings, and for small holdings. We do not suggest that they should part entirely with the property in, or the control of, the land. That should be reserved for the community alone. We propose that the tenants should have entire security so long as they fulfil the conditions of their holdings. I believe that by such a proposal we should do something to fix the labourers in the country, to tie them to the land, and to satisfy that earth-hunger which God has implanted in all who are connected directly to that industry.

There is nothing new in the experiment. It has been tried for years by great landowners like Lord Tollemache in Cheshire and Lord Carrington in Buckinghamshire, who have, to the great advantage of their tenants, to the great honour of themselves, adopted the system which I have described; and all we want is to give to those who are the representatives of the community the right of doing for all heir members what those beneficient individuals have done for those who happen to be dependent on them. I say that is a just proposal, a reasonable proposal, a moderate proposal. Nobody will be injured by it; nobody will be robbed by it; and I cannot conceive of a Liberal Government, or a Liberal programme, which should exclude it altogether.

There is another and a very important question on which I should like to say a few words, and that is the freedom of the schools. Now I think there exists some misconception as to the scope and nature of the proposal we make on this point. I see sometimes a statement that it would destroy the denominational schools and put an end to religious education. These are questions of grave importance, which some day or other perhaps at no distant day will be discussed on their own merits. But I wish to say that they are altogether outside and apart from the particular proposal I am making. You might free the schools tomorrow without in the slightest degree affecting the position of the denominational system, and I think those who are interested in this system are extremely unwise in attempting to connect its existence with arrangements which are already condemned by public opinion, and which really have nothing whatever to do with it.

At the present time the total of fees receivable in all the schools of England and Wales amount to a little over a million and a half, and I believe an addition to the income tax of three farthings in the pound, as one method of providing money, would be sufficient to throw open tomorrow every schoolhouse in the land, leaving all other and collateral questions entirely unprejudiced and untouched. I claim the freedom of the schools as a great aid to the spread of education, and as a just concession to the necessities of the poor. The fee is a great bar to regularity of attendance. It accounts for the greater part of the waste in our education system. It accounts for the great majority of the empty seats in our schools.

A few days ago I received a letter from a schoolmaster in a great school in a Staffordshire town, in which he thanked me for the advocacy of free education, and in eloquent terms alluded to the pain and the anxiety and the labour cast upon him and upon his class by the necessity of collecting fees from the poor, who cannot provide them except at the cost of the barest necessities of existence, and who yet are too proud to apply for parish relief. This gentleman said he thought it would be interesting for me to see some of the letters he was constantly receiving from the parents to whom he had to apply in these circumstances. I should like to read to you one or two of these letters. It will bring home to you the nature of the hardships, the unnecessary hardships, which this system inflicts upon the industrious poor.

The first letter reads, If you please I cannot send you the money this week. Their father has not done more than three days work a week for ever so long. Please sir, be kind not to send them home or we will be summoned for the money. He has never troubled the parish, and he says, he will sooner drown himself. I will try, if I can, to send some of it. The second letter reads, Please sir, my father cannot get work anywhere. For seven years he has kept his children at school, and he has been walking miles and miles in search of work, and when he returns we have had to wash his feet in salt and water. We have not got bread to eat, and we have no money to send. The third letter states, I have done what I could this morning. I have not sent you all the money, but I send you a shilling, but there is no more need to put it in the childrens bellies. The last letter I will read is to this effect You cannot form an idea, I am sure, how some people have to live; our poor children and ourselves have not had a bit of breakfast this morning, yet you send them to me for more money. My eldest boy has gone to work this morning without anything. I can assure you it is heart-breaking for me. They have been at the school ever since the opening, but we cannot send money when we have not bread to eat.

Gentlemen, I say that these letters are pathetic – ay, they are tragic. They are disclosures of the endurance and of the misery which some people have to suffer because of the folly and the pedantry of others who hesitate to assist them lest it should prejudice their independence. I hold that in the new Parliament we shall do what every democracy has done before us, and open our schoolhouses for the benefit of our children, and for the advantage of the whole community. Education is necessary to the material advancement of every child, and it is necessary also to the mental and moral elevation. If I were a working man in a borough, or an agricultural labourer in a county constituency, I would cut off my right hand before I would vote for any candidate who refused to support such a necessary and beneficial reform.

Well, there are many other points in the Radical programme to which I dare not refer to at length tonight. I will only briefly mention two of them. There is the question of the revision of taxation. I think that taxation ought to involve equality of sacrifice, and I do not see how this result is to be obtained except by some form of graduated taxation that is, taxation which is proportionate to the superfluities of the taxpayer. When I am told that this is a new-fangled and a revolutionary doctrine, I wonder if my critics have read any elementary book on the subject; because if they had they must have seen that a graduated income tax is not a novelty in this country. It existed in the Middle Ages, when those who exercised authority and power did so with harshness to their equals, but they knew, nevertheless, how to show consideration for the necessities of those beneath them. Then there is the question of the taxation of unoccupied land, of sporting land, of ground rent and of mineral royalties. For my own part, I advocate all these methods of taxation, much less for the amount they would bring into the Exchequer than because I think they would discourage certain arrangements which have been productive of much inconvenience and suffering to the community.

Then there is the question of the Game Laws. I cannot believe it possible that any Parliament, freely elected by the whole people, will tolerate the continuance of this anomalous I would even say of this barbarous legislation, which is intended to protect the sports of the well-to-do. Lastly, there is the proposal, the just demand, which has so much fluttered some of our opponents, for an inquiry into the illegal appropriation of public rights and public endowments; and if this be found to have taken place within the last half century, for their restitution, or for adequate compensation. I do not say that every one of these points is necessary and at once to be made a cardinal article for the Liberal programme; but I say that any attempt to exclude them from a fair, full, and impartial consideration will be fatal to unity, and will conduce to our certain defeat. The Liberal party of the past has been the popular party. It has been reinforced from time to time by successive Reform Bills, and now, after the greatest of them all, it would be false to its trust and unworthy of its high mission if it did not strive to bring the institutions of the country into harmony with the wants and the aspirations of the people; if it did not seek continuously the greatest happiness of the greatest number; if it did not serve the poor with at least as much zeal as it brings to the protection of the rich; and if it did not enforce the obligations of property as strenuously as it defends its rights.